Sun Noodle shoyu noodles, my pick for the best store-bought ramen.

Sun Noodle shoyu noodles, my pick for the best store-bought ramen. (Kate Williams)

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Not all ramen is created equal.

This much Bay Area diners know from eating out at the seemingly infinite numbers of ramen restaurants now populating our cities. But the ramen available in restaurants isn’t always great, and the good spots are often packed, leading to long lines and hungry bellies. My favorite way to tackle this problem is, of course, to make ramen at home.

It is not a quick task. Most DIY ramen recipes take a couple of days of cooking time — a good ramen broth, in particular takes at least 6 to 8 hours of simmering. And then there’s the toppings, like chashu and soy-eggs, which both require time. Fortunately, none of this work is difficult. In fact, the hardest part about making ramen at home (besides managing your cooking schedule) is sourcing good noodles.

High-quality ramen noodles have a distinct chewy spring and a definite wheaty sweetness. It’s hard, if not impossible, to recreate such noodles at home. Sure, recipes exist, but they require alkaline salts and high-pressure extruders. I recommend skipping this step and buying ramen from the store.

There are three different categories of ramen noodles available: fresh, dried, and fried. Fresh noodles are most often sold frozen, and these are usually your best bet for quality. Dried noodles can also be good; some look like Italian pasta, and others are sold in individual serving cakes. Fried noodles are what I used to think of when I thought of ramen, that college-student staple sold in cakes with MSG-laden seasoning packets. If you’re looking to avoid fried brands of dried noodles, just look at the nutrition facts. Fried noodles will have somewhere around 8 grams of fat per serving; non-fried noodles will have closer to zero.

On the seasoning packet note, most ramen noodles, from fresh to fried, are still sold in individual packages with accompanying seasonings. I recommend buying the number of portions you need and toss the seasoning packets. I’ll have detailed directions for making your own, far better, soup from scratch soon.

I tried six different brands and styles of ramen noodles available in the Bay Area. I boiled each noodle according to the package directions and tossed them in a drizzle of sesame oil to prevent sticking. I tasted the noodles plain, on their own, with no other seasoning or broth. They widely ranged in price; some were worth the extra cost, and others were, well, not. Here are my picks, from best to worst:

Sun Noodle Fresh Ramen Noodle (any style)

Sun Noodle’s Shoyu ramen kit.
Sun Noodle’s Shoyu ramen kit. (Kate Williams)
Sun Noodle’s ramen noodles are perfectly springy with just the right amount of chew.
Sun Noodle’s ramen noodles are perfectly springy with just the right amount of chew. (Kate Williams)

Okay, I’m going to be honest here. Sun Noodle swept away the competition, hands-down. There is no better noodle you can buy in stores. The company is based in Hawaii, with two other ramen factories in Los Angeles and New York. Many top ramen shops around the country use Sun Noodle — Shiba Ramen in Emeryville and Momofuku Noodle Bar, for example — and there’s a good reason why. Sun Noodle makes several different styles of noodles to suit different broths. Tonkotsu and miso ramens need different shape noodles, for example. All of their noodles, though, have a perfect springy texture that stretches just a bit as you slurp them. More importantly, Sun Noodles taste homemade. They’re a little sweet, with a strong wheat flavor. Plus, they hold up very well in hot broth. I used the shoyu style noodles when serving my homemade ramen and the noodles never turned mushy. The only drawback? Sun Noodle is on the pricey side (around $2 per portion), especially if you try to order them online. A better bet is to seek them out in a grocery store (Berkeley Bowl or Tokyo Fish Market).

Hakubaku Organic Ramen

Hakubaku Organic Ramen Noodles.
Hakubaku Organic Ramen Noodles. (Kate Williams)
Hakubaku’s dried noodles are my second favorite ramen.
Hakubaku’s dried noodles are my second favorite ramen. (Kate Williams)

Another good bet are the dried ramen noodles from Hakubaku. This Australian company makes straight, slightly sweet noodles that also hold up well in broth. Hakubaku’s noodles, like Sun Noodle’s, are made with alkalizing salts, so the cooked noodles have a springy chew. These noodles hold up well in hot broth, and also work well in stir-fries (if you’re looking for more versatility in your noodle purchases. Any drawbacks? They’re a bit more like spaghetti than what you’d get at a ramen shop, but they’ll do if you don’t want to spring for Sun Noodle.

Shirakiku Non-Fried Ramen (any style)

Shirakiku Non-Fried Shoyu Ramen.
Shirakiku Non-Fried Shoyu Ramen. (Kate Williams)
If you’re going to buy dehydrated, pre-packaged ramen, buy Shirakiku’s noodles.
If you’re going to buy dehydrated, pre-packaged ramen, buy Shirakiku’s noodles. (Kate Williams)

Shirakiku ramen noodles look like classic instant ramen — they are a crinkled noodle, formed into a dehydrated cake and sold with an accompanying powdery seasoning packet. However, instead of being fried, they’re air-dried. Shirakiku indicates this preparation method on the package, so they’re easy to distinguish. The noodles themselves are fine; they have a neutral, slightly bland wheat flavor. However, they’re thin and very easy to overcook. If you buy this brand, make sure to cook them for only a minute or two before serving in broth.

Yamachan Ramen (any style)

Yamachan Shoyu Ramen.
Yamachan Shoyu Ramen. (Kate Williams)
Yamachan’s noodles are made locally in San Jose.
Yamachan’s noodles are made locally in San Jose. (Kate Williams)

These are the only ramen noodles I found that are made nearby. Yamachan’s factory is in San Jose, and it makes a wide variety of noodle soups. The noodles are fresh, and sold frozen, and they’re similar in appearance to Sun Noodle. However, I found the texture of the noodles to be unpleasantly sticky and a bit slimy. The noodles also have a bit of chemically aftertaste; it’s quite apparent when eating the noodles plain, but I imagine it would disappear into the background when eaten in soup. They’re a little bit harder to find — I was only able to source them from Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. You should also be able to order them online through the company’s website. A final note for gluten-free readers: Yamachan lists gluten-free ramen noodles on their commercial products section. I’d be willing to bet you could order some if you called and asked.

Koyo Organic Ramen (any style)

Koyo Tofu Miso Ramen.
Koyo Tofu Miso Ramen. (Kate Williams)
Koyo makes dried, non-fried ramen noodles similar to Shirakiku (above).
Koyo makes dried, non-fried ramen noodles similar to Shirakiku (above). (Kate Williams)

Koyo’s noodle style is similar to Shirakiku — they’re sold dehydrated and not fried, and they are sold in individual serving packets. Because Koyo is made from organic flour, they’re a bit more expensive than Shirakiku ($1.29 versus $0.99), and in this case, the price isn’t really worth it. I found the noodles to be very bland and mushy once cooked. They’re not terrible, but they’re far from your best bet. If you do buy Koyo, keep an eye on the noodles as they cook and keep the boiling time to a minimum.

Sapporo Ichiban Japanese-Style Noodles

Sapporo Ichiban Japanese-Style Noodles & Original Flavored Soup.
Sapporo Ichiban Japanese-Style Noodles & Original Flavored Soup. (Kate Williams)
Sapporo is a classic, well-rated brand of instant ramen.
Sapporo is a classic, well-rated brand of instant ramen. (Kate Williams)

Sapporo’s noodles are a classic. I wanted to compare a fried noodle to dried and fresh, and Sapporo’s consistently come up at the top of instant ramen taste-tests. They are, however, far inferior to fried and fresh noodles. Sapporo noodles stay a bit more firm than Koyo, but they have a distinct fried flavor, and they’re oily out of the package. If you insist on fried ramen noodles, you’ll probably like these. For the rest of us, I’d advise spending a few more cents for a better (and healthier) product.

Store-Bought Ramen Noodles: You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For 29 January,2016Kate Williams

  • sweatpants

    Sun noodles are also available at Koreana Plaza, and I think they also had Yamachan the last time I was there. 99 Ranch is not mentioned, but I imagine they have most of the dried noodles, and I think I’ve seen the refrigerated ones. Do you happen to know who makes the noodles Tokyo Market sells in a plain plastic bag, unlabeled? I like those. Yuen Hop in Oakland also sells alkalized noodles that are pretty good. As far as firmness without any alkaline aftertaste, I like Wyzen, which contain egg, so not traditional ramen, but my favorite.

    • williaka

      Hi sweatpants,

      Thanks for all of your suggestions! I didn’t get a chance to get to all of the various Asian markets, and was relying on the brand websites for store information. Clearly not the most reliable source 🙂 I am not sure who makes the unlabeled noodles from Tokyo Fish. I’ll have to give them a try!

      Kate

  • BillStewart2012

    Almost all of the fried noodles use palm oil (except for a few using canola, etc.) It works ok, and it’s extremely cheap in Asia, so it’s widely used, but unfortunately that’s because the main sources are plantations on cut-down rainforests in Indonesia, which are critical habitat for orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and the Indonesian rhinos, all of which are seriously endangered.

    So I’ve switched over to mainly using unfried noodles. Hakubaku are consistently good, or sometimes there are others at 99 Ranch or Nijiya Japanese Market. Nijiya’s also the only place I can semi-reliably find San Jose Tofu.

Author

Kate Williams

Kate Williams grew up outside of Atlanta, where twenty-pound baskets of peaches were an end-of-summer tradition. After spending time in Boston developing recipes for America’s Test Kitchen and pretending to be a New Englander, she moved to sunny Berkeley. Here she works as a personal chef and food writer, covering topics ranging from taco trucks to modernist cookbooks. In addition to KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Kate’s work appears on Serious Eats, Berkeleyside NOSH, The Oxford American, America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks, and Food52.